The Time for Hyperallergic Has Come

Forty years ago, when I started publishing art criticism there were a number of publications to choose from. There was Arts Magazine, which had articles on contemporary art and modernist works. And its rival, Art in America. Also there were a number of small circulation English journals. One, I remember, had so little money that the editor communicated by writing notes on the shrink-wrap of my subscription copy. There was ArtInternational. And then some years later an enterprising Italian publication, Tema Celeste appeared. The publications in which I most wanted to appear were Artforum, which was the leading American journal devoted to contemporary art. And The Burlington Magazine, a posh English publication one of whose founders in 1903 was Roger Fry. Both of these print publications survive. Most of the others don’t.

Now, as in the past, Artforum has major essays (one accompanied by photographic coverage on the cover), news items at the front, and in the back of the journal in smaller print, short reviews of shows everywhere. At one point in the 1990s, inspired by the burgeoning field of cultural studies, the journal enlarged its coverage outside of the gallery world. But mostly it hasn’t pursued that concern. And The Burlington Magazine presents reviews of exhibitions from all periods, but limits its coverage of research almost entirely to essays on old master European art.Of course there also are important all purpose journals like The Nation and The New Yorker, which bundle together art criticism of all periods with general political coverage. And there is The New York Times, which in the Arts section presents some art reviews, usually on Friday.

As everyone knows, journalism is beleaguered. Indeed, in Pittsburgh, where I live, there is no longer a daily printed newspaper. What’s changed art journalism most dramatically is the rise of on-line criticism. Founded in 2009, Hyperallergic, which has new content appearing on-line several times a week, presents a great deal of news that isn’t readily available anywhere else. It’s free, and all of the past issues also are immediately accessible. There are many many exhibition and book reviews. But also it publishes numerous accounts about museum funding and salaries; about political debates relevant to the art world; about films; and about issues like debates about censorship of artistic materials. In the past couple of years, for example, while usually doing reviews, I’ve written about billboards, comic books, graffiti, memorials, and tattoos— materials at the margins of the usual art world discussions. And when the cartoonist for the local newspaper was fired, I covered that story. As is not the case at Artforum, every contributor gets the same level of prominence. Numerous younger writers, including many women write for the journal.

A publication with this swiftly changing on-line format uses up copy very quickly. And editing is labor intensive, so, keeping going takes real stamina. As a longtime art writer, I am fascinated right now by the sheer quantity (and quality) of writing available and by the speed at which this writing is produced and edited. The internet makes it possible to publish reviews while exhibitions are still up. At this time, when the art world is so much under the spell of the superrich, and when press coverage too often is focused on just the most important museums and the largest commercial galleries, Hyperallergic is praiseworthy for its presentation of many smaller out-of-the way institutions, including some outside of metropolitan New York. With a distinctly populist political script, it offers swiftly produced, well illustrated, reliable coverage from diverse commentators. In my experience, factual errors in reviews are swiftly called out and corrected. Its concern to publicize and discuss progressive causes in accessible, jargon-free prose is exemplary. And the genuine concern to extend its coverage outside of the art world is an extremely important innovation, one whose impact, hard to predict, may well ultimately be enormous.

The place of Hyperallergic in the history of art criticism should be understood historically. Under the old regime, patronage was exerted in a top-down fashion. Then on the eve of the French Revolution, the Salons held in the Louvre were large exhibitions open to the public. And so art critics, the most famous of them was Denis Diderot, offered a public guide to these displays. For all of the vast changes in the styles of art exhibited, in our art world, too, there is a lot to see, and so a critical perspective is needed. In 1784, Immanuel Kant’a essay “What is Enlightenment?” defined the politics of the Enlightenment. As he said: “Have the courage to use your own intelligence is therefore the motto of the enlightenment.” What’s required, he argued, is that we learn to think for ourselves. Has this happened yet? Not at all, of course not. But free discussion, both in the art world and in the larger political culture is surely required if it is to happen. Kant thought that “all that is required for this enlightenment is freedom.” I hope that he was correct.

Do I disagree with Hyperallergic? I should hope so— all of the time! Indeed sometimes I disagree with what I have said. Am I sorry for these disagreements? Not at all, because I believe in the importance of a quickly produced record that inspires constructive conversation. In a famous scene in Pablo Picasso’s early career, at the staging of the 1917 premiere of the ”Cubist” ballet, ‘’Parade’’ Serge Diaghilev commanded Jean Cocteau, ”Astonish me.’’ And he did. Nowadays Hyperallergic does this regularly. That’s why it has become an essential, much admired cultural resource. In our noisy environment, you need to speak in a loud clear voice to be heard. My hope is that this publication will help create a public sphere, a place where real discussion of art’s politics is possible. What’s lacking, still, is some way to get serious regular responses. My review of a Jerusalem show of Soviet art produced this comment: “David Carrier is a hack for US capitalist ideology. “ When I was a university teacher, I often had problems getting my smart, well motivated students to present focused discussion. If the internet reviews are to succeed politically, they may need to generate genuine audience participation. As yet, I don’t have a clue how to do that.

Recently I wrote about Brooklyn Rail. And so I want to also discuss Hyperallergic, for right now our American art world needs to support both of these publications, which often have complimentary coverage. I hope that they both will prosper. At this difficult time when journalism is beleaguered, these two new journals are showing how much is to be learnt by doing old things in new ways. The gifted English art writer Julian Bell speaks of “the possibility of enjoying writing about painting as a creative enjoyment in its own right. You don’t have to agree with art writers and theorists to read them with benefit . . . ” That’s my attitude exactly.


On Artforum’s history see my “Artforum, Andy Warhol and the Art of Living: What Art Educators can Learn from the recent history of American Art Writing,” J. of Aesthetic Education, 39, 1 (Spring 2005): 1-12. The quotation of Bell comes from his What is Painting? The quote of my critic comes from I have written for Artforum and theBurlington Magazine. And am a regular contributor to Hyperallergic. My Art Writing Online appeared in 2022.

David Carrier is a philosopher who writes art criticism. His Aesthetic Theory, Abstract Art and Lawrence Carroll (Bloomsbury) and with Joachim Pissarro, Aesthetics of the Margins/ The Margins of Aesthetics: Wild Art Explained (Penn State University Press) were published in 2018. He is writing a book about the historic center of Naples, and with Pissarro he conducted a sequence of interviews with museum directors for Brooklyn Rail. He is a regular contributor to Hyperallergic.